California Epicures Omit not the Beer
Dr. Marcus E. Crahan (1901-1978) was a psychiatrist and long-time Medical Director of the Los Angeles County Jail. Apart from his considerable importance in gastronomy he is remembered for investigating the deaths of Robert F. Kennedy and Marilyn Monroe.
Crahan was from a prominent California family established for generations in the State. He was a bon vivant, bibliophile, and key early member of the Wine and Food Society of Southern California (originally, the Wine and Food Society of Los Angeles).
This group is among the first American branches of the London-based International Wine and Food Society, established in 1933 by the French-born culinary writer and wine expert André L. Simon.
Simon was President and the Briton A.J.A. Symons, Secretary. Simon edited the Society’s influential Wine and Food Journal.
The New York, Boston, and Chicago chapters of the WFS were established between 1933 and 1935, a product of Simon’s indefatigable missionary efforts that ranged around the world. Many more chapters, in the U.S. and on other continents, were formed in subsequent decades.
The Southern California branch continues today and unlike many branches has a somewhat exclusive aura. Many newer branches – California has about 20 in total – accept new members on application. The Southern California branch still vets new members.
The website of the International Wine and Food Society explains that each branch maintains its own traditions, which permits a degree of autonomy in selection of members. Nonetheless, all branches must follow general IWFS policies. These include the promotion of gastronomy, wine culture, and food education.
In 1955, 20 years after the Southern California branch was founded, Crahan prepared a comprehensive history of the group, which you can read here. It is an invaluable record that describes early branch dinners and other activities, and the IWFS in general.
The Los Angeles branch counted many socially prominent Californians, an elite if you will. Key members included W.I. Converse, Sr., from the wine industry, and Dr. Phil Hanna, another medico.
Nonetheless, their culinary and wine adventures disclosed a questing spirit, one rather in tune with today’s cuisine ethos. The members tasted and drank from a wide geographical and cultural range despite the era, the pre- and immediate post-war period.
By 1955 the group had held no less than 155 sessions. Even by 1937-1938, Crahan states the group had engaged in every kind of tasting and dinner it ever would. These included a prophetic Chilean wine tasting and dinner, an Armenian dinner, Swedish and English dinners, and a foray into Peruvian cuisine and pisco brandy.
Among the drinks tasted, whiskey and other well-known spirits are not represented. Crahan included only representative dinners, so the group may have held some tastings for whiskey, rum or tequila. Wines of all types were extensively sampled including from the restored (post-Repeal) American wine business although it was still finding its legs in those years.
The onset of the Nazi era seemingly did not deter the group from sampling German wine. In April 1938 German (and Alsatian) wines were included in some tastings.
Andre Simon even published a book, German Wines, in 1939 that apparently was supported by Germany’s Ministry of Agriculture. Until the war directly engaged America such activities were not viewed askance by public opinion. Perhaps the L.A. epicureans came to regret these dubious actions, but it is part of their history.
Crahan’s book includes a Simon bibliography, a lengthy and comprehensive listing of works. Impressive for someone who not only left school at 17, but was writing in a second language. A letter from Simon to Crahan is included that itself gives important history of the International Wine and Food Society.
Beer and Wine of the Country
Did the Los Angeles group ignore beer? Not at all. It held at least one full-scale beer tasting, on September 7, 1938. Nowhere in the book does Crahan give any indication that he members considered beer inferior to their (always primary) wine interest.
At the time, this approach to beer was unusual, certainly in upper echelon society. Perhaps California by its nature – the relatively recent settlement history, the multi-cultural cast, the climate – favoured a more inclusive approach to beer than branches elsewhere disclosed.
The L.A. branch gave an award each year for best non-wine beverage tasted. Acme Bock, brewed in California, consistently won. Clearly the Society was willing, where appropriate, to place domestic brewing on a par with reputed international brands.
Carlsberg beer, from Denmark, won the award in 1939, an example of its longstanding eminence. (Whether merited today is another question).
In this light, is it any surprise modern craft brewing was birthed in 1970s California? One can credit in some small part Dr. Crahan’s band of epicureans for the modern beer revival. One way or another such attentions seep into the larger culture, and can only be traced haphazardly, usually decades after the influence was felt.
California wine, for its part, figured from the beginning in the group’s activities. As quality and availability grew so did the number of good Californian wines in their tastings. The group organized tours of some of these wineries, one in Santa Clara for example.
Crahan published another book just on California wines. Fellow member Maynard McFie published a California wine commentary in 1941, perhaps the first to appear after commercial winemaking re-started in 1933.
The book makes clear that during WW II the group ceased most of its activities but it still held small gatherings. As I discussed earlier, the New York branch of the IWFS continued its tasting programme between 1942 and 1945.
The war years gave gastronomic society members the opportunity to consider American viticulture from a new angle, necessity, as foreign wines from traditional wine countries were not available.
The enforced focus on local, and also hemispheric, wines by American gastronomers surely helped foster the positive image American wine that finally emerged, years later.
I include below a couple of pages from Crahan’s prologue. He eloquently explains how the mingling Yankee and Spanish cultures in California produced a unique gastronomy. It’s a phenomenon that was later repeated for many other cuisines, some in California like Cal-Mex.
In general, the L.A. branch approached food and drink in a way similar to today’s podcasts, Food Network shows, and other media that publicize and inform modern food and wine culture.
What has changed is the democratization factor: what was once a hobby or networking tool for a privileged, well-heeled elite has gone mainstream, or at least, to a much greater degree than in the 40 and 50s.
The New York branch of the IWFS, indeed all the U.S. branches, played their role in this future but none more so than the L.A. chapter, given its location in California, centre of American wine culture, and the beneficent climate of the State that produces fruit, vegetables and other foods to a high pitch of quality.
Note re images: all images above are via the HathiTrust digital library, from the book linked in the text. All intellectual property in the images belongs solely to their lawful owner or authorized user, as applicable. Images are used for educational and historical purposes. All feedback welcomed.